Oddly, air pollution isn’t always worse in the summer than in the winter. Often it can seem that way as previously healthy employees start coughing and spluttering by Wednesday and spend the rest of the work week being attacked on all sides by pollution. But in winter, more smoke is added to the atmosphere from things like fireplaces and wood stoves, and more idling cars lead to more carbon dioxide being pumped out of the exhaust.
This pollution, mostly nitrogen oxide, reacts with other chemicals and hydrocarbons in the sunlight to form ozone gas, which can then mix with particulates in the air. This means that summer haze can be pretty nasty to your lungs, because you’re inhaling everything from the black emissions of a number 22 bus with dust cleaned from a window, all served in a lovely layer of ozone.
High levels of ground-level ozone gas tend to irritate the lungs, inflaming them, as well as making life difficult for your eyes, nose and throat. When that happens, you’ll experience a tight chest and coughing. If you already have hayfever or asthma, this can make regular activities much more difficult than normal.
Hopefully, with more and more people switching to electric or hybrid cars, air pollution will become less of a problem. Such cars won’t totally rid the motoring world of pollution; the electricity they use to keep running is still produced by power plants who use fuels like coal. But the growing acceptance of eco-friendly cars should mean that air pollution becomes much less of a problem for asthmatics or people with weak chests in the future.
In the meantime, the only hope for summer air pollution to disappear is a big, crashing storm, preferably one with thunder and lightning. If you’ve ever heard people say that the air seems ‘fresher’ after a storm, that’s because it is. Stagnant air, where ozone gas squats, is whisked away by the fierce storm winds, and when it rains hard the particulates that collect and bond with ozone to make it harder to breathe are broken up and washed away.